On election night 2008, John Key had enough seats to form a government with the ACT Party. Even better, there was no Winston Peters around, as New Zealand First had failed to enter Parliament. In a far- sighted move, Mr Key also got the Maori Party to support him. In true MMP style, he was shoring up support for when the inevitable erosion of the vote for an incumbent government occurs. That erosion has taken far longer to occur than most commentators predicted.
OPINION: The polls are showing a neck- and-neck race between National and a Labour/Green coalition, with the Maori Party and New Zealand First holding the balance of power. After a certain MP from the Far North scared the hoihos, the Maori Party have proved to be a reliable support party, though along the way they've had to swallow some pretty large kiores.
But since 2008, ACT has imploded, the Maori Party risks utu from its electorate for supporting a Right-wing, beneficiary-bashing government and Peter Dunne's electorate majority has been declining as steadily as the recent ratings for The Ridges. There's always the fledgling Conservative Party waiting in the wings, though Colin Craig's Planet Bonky views on same-sex marriage could scare away some liberal Tories.
So given the genial John Key is fast becoming the Nobby No-mates of New Zealand politics, could he look at a possible deal with NZ First? After all, Winston Peters is an ex-Tory. He may be the Hugh Hefner of MMP couplings, but he's also an old-fashioned conservative on most social issues.
Mr Peters also has a loyal, well- trained caucus that would make a dog-obedience instructor proud. And Mr Peters is the sort of blokey bloke that the affable Mr Key relates to, despite the Prime Minister being a tad metrosexual himself at times. Granted, Mr Key is far more neo-liberal than Mr Peters, but when has ideology overly bothered either man? Principles; schminciples.
John Key must be aware that Winston Peters, Jim Bolger and their late-night friend, Jim Beam, formed a very happy troika in 1996. It was only nasty Jenny Shipley rolling Mr Bolger that stuffed up their matey coalition.
The problem is that in 2011, Mr Key emphatically ruled out Winston Peters as a coalition partner, mainly due to the donations scandal that dogged New Zealand First. As his popularity skyrocketed, Mr Key told us, with George-Washington- like sincerity, that though it may be politically expedient for him to entertain a deal with Mr Peters, it was a "matter of political principle" that he could not work with the New Zealand First leader.
But though Mr Peters has been unacceptable, on principle, to our prime minister In the past, barring an unlikely massive surge for National it looks as if Mr Key will need to have the support of Mr Peters if he wants a third term. So how will Mr Key weasel out of his "principled" position? Can he have another brain fade and forget his previous posturing?
Yes. Mr Key has successfully weaselled out of such positions before, such as when he raised the GST rate after emphatically stating that it would not move.
The prime minister has already started some preliminary pre- weaselling, like when he said that the principle at stake was not what he thought of Winston Peters, but the principle he had of reviewing, every election year, whom he would be prepared to work with. Confused? So am I.
I suspect Mr Key offering Mr Peters a deal would rate highly on the weaselometer for an increasingly weary, wary New Zealand public. So will Mr Key risk selling all his principles by making such overtures that could be rejected anyway? After all, hell hath no fury like a New Zealand First leader scorned.
Mr Key is in a difficult position. Perhaps he will instead pass legislation promising that he will sell off no more than 49 per cent of his principles, in the hope that Mum-and-Dad voters give him a mandate for another three years, even if it is in coalition with his 'unreliable' opponent.
- The Dominion Post